Posted: February 28, 2013 at 6:56 pm

 

Tim Creighton started smoking when he was in the second grade after seeing his classmates light up; he felt it would help him fit in. Now a 22-year-old student at West Virginia University, Creighton acknowledges that he is addicted to cigarettes.

“When everyone around you smoked and used dip, it’s just something you did. It’s something everyone did,” he said.

Creighton isn’t alone. More than 20 percent of West Virginia’s high school students smoke and nearly 25 percent of the state’s male high school students use smokeless tobacco, according to the West Virginia Department of Health’s Division of Tobacco Prevention. Of the students who admitted to smoking, more than one third of them started smoking before the ninth grade. The average smoker in West Virginia starts smoking at the age of 12, two years below the national average, according to the West Virginia Department of Health.

A WVU student smokes a cigarette outside Clark Hall on the West Virginia University Downtown campus. Starting in July of 2013, smoking will be banned on the Downtown campus.

A WVU student smokes a cigarette outside Clark Hall on the West Virginia University Downtown campus. Starting in July of 2013, smoking will be banned on the Downtown campus.

Smoking, of course, is not restricted to West Virginia’s youth. According to the Center for Disease Control, West Virginia’s adult smoking rate is nearly 27 percent, the highest of any state in the nation. Tobacco-related diseases are the leading cause of death in West Virginia, accounting for more than 4,000 deaths annually.  Experts believe West Virginia’s high smoking rate is caused by a combination of factors, including widespread poverty, lack of education, Appalachian culture and weak tobacco-control policies.

A recent report issued by the National Lung Association gave West Virginia a grade of “F” for its tobacco prevention efforts, citing the state’s very low cigarette taxes, lack of funding of tobacco prevention programs, and polluted air. According to the Federation of Tax Administrators, West Virginia’s tax rate of 55 cents per pack is the sixth lowest in the nation. A recent study published in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed scientific journal,  found that an increase of the tobacco tax in New York accelerated the decline in the number of smokers in the state. 

Barbara Fleischauer, a Democratic member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, says she would support a substantial increase of the state’s cigarette tax, especially if it can be shown that it discourages young people from starting to smoke. However, she noted that such a measure was unlikely to garner wide support in the state legislature without support from Governor Earl Ray Tomblin. And that may not happen anytime soon. When Tomblin was President of the state Senate before becoming governor, he was the number one recipient of campaign contributions from the tobacco industry. Many other state politicians, including the new West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey, have also been beneficiaries of the industry’s largesse.

Robert Anderson, the program coordinator of the WVU School of Public Health’s Prevention Research Center, believes that smoking prevention efforts should be aimed at young people, especially since smoking is so addictive.

“The best way to lower the smoking rate is to prevent people from smoking in the first place,” Anderson said. “That starts with good tobacco prevention programs in the schools.”

West Virginia currently has some programs in place. In 2002, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources started a program called RAZE, which aims to inform the state’s high school and middle school students about the health dangers and economic costs of smoking and tobacco use. In addition to running an extensive advertising campaign on TV and in newspapers and magazines encouraging students to abstain from smoking, RAZE provides students with the opportunities to participate in anti-smoking events across the state.

According to the American Lung Association, the state of West Virginia’s tobacco prevention efforts still have a way to go. However, Fleischauer says that progress has been made with smoking bans at the local level.

“If you just look at state laws, you wouldn’t know how hard we’ve fought at the local level,” Fleischauer said. Anderson agreed. Nearly one fifth of West Virginia’s 55 counties have enacted smoking bans, he noted. In July of this year, West Virginia University plans to enact a campuswide ban on smoking, which is already prohibited on the Evansdale campus.

 

A view of Morgantown from the top floor of Mountaineer Station, the West Virginia University Health Sciences Campus parking garage. All over the building, the walls are emblazoned with “No Smoking.” Tobacco has been banned at the HSC for more than a year.

A view of Morgantown from the top floor of Mountaineer Station, the West Virginia University Health Sciences Campus parking garage. All over the building, the walls are emblazoned with “No Smoking.” Tobacco has been banned at the Health Sciences Center for more than a year.

Anderson also stressed that the causes of the state’s high rate of tobacco use are complex and not completely the fault of poor tobacco control policies. West Virginia’s population is among the poorest and least educated in the nation. According to the CDC, both of these factors contribute to high rates of tobacco use. Anderson also noted that West Virginia’s culture encourages tobacco use.

“If you have grandfathers or fathers offering a chew to an eight-year-old, that of course increases the likelihood this child will grow up to use tobacco,” Anderson said.